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Height of Halston: Documentary 'Ultrasuede' makes clear the designer's influence on fashion

Roy Halston, left, was one of the first high-end designers to try his hand at mass marketing. (Courtesy of "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston"/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Roy Halston, left, was one of the first high-end designers to try his hand at mass marketing. (Courtesy of "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston"/Los Angeles Times/MCT)Read more

By Booth Moore

Los Angeles Times


LOS ANGELES — One of the most striking moments in the new film "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston" is a news clip of Dan Rather eulogizing the designer who died of AIDS-related cancer in 1990 as the creator of the pillbox hat.

While the Kennedy-era headwear was historic, it was only the tip of the iceberg for Roy Halston, the milliner from small-town Indiana who became America's first celebrity designer.

Although the film doesn't connect the dots completely, viewers will see that Halston was ahead of his time, paving the way for the shape of fashion to come. It's debatable whether we would be watching designers on "Project Runway" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show," or shopping for affordable versions of their clothes at Target and H&M if it weren't for Halston, a TV natural who once appeared on "The Love Boat."

While Halston certainly was fueled by the spectacular excesses of the 1970s, he was also eclipsed by them, and the genius of his simple Ultrasuede shirtwaist dresses, six-ply cashmere turtleneck sweaters and slinky jersey halter gowns is too often lost amid stories of coke binges at Studio 54.

He was the first American designer to try licensing on a large scale to the mass market, an exercise in fashion democracy that failed miserably then, but is the norm now. And he was an early victim of the corporate mergers and acquisitions that are business as usual in the apparel industry today, unable to adapt as his brand changed hands from Norton Simon Industries to Beatrice Foods, to Playtex, Revlon and more.

Numerous designers have tried to revive the brand, including Randolph Duke, Bradley Bayou and Kevan Hall, but none has succeeded. In 2007, the Halston name was bought by filmmaker Harvey Weinstein. Marios Schwab is the latest designer to occupy the creative director post, with Sarah Jessica Parker as chief creative officer.

The idea for a Halston biopic has been bandied about Hollywood for years, with Alec Baldwin and Brendan Fraser both rumored to be attached to the leading role at one time or another. It's easy to see why. Halston's good looks and his entourage of identically dressed Halstonettes are made for the big screen.

But "Ultrasuede's" director, Whitney Sudler-Smith — whose mother, socialite Patricia Altschul, was part of Halston's circle — had something different in mind for his film, which had its West Coast premiere last week, hosted by the Costume Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Originally, I wanted to make a fun, crazy film about the decadence of the 1970s, with Halston as a figurehead. But the more I got into it, the more I realized this guy had an almost Shakespearean story. What made him great also killed him."

The project took four years to complete, and the result is a cross between a reality TV show and a documentary film, with Sudler-Smith sporting a series of '70s haircuts and Burt Reynolds-style mustaches, and cruising to interviews in a Camaro. "We wanted to transcend fashion and reach out to everyone," he says. "I am the comic relief."

Sudler-Smith interviews a lot of amazing characters, starting with Halston's best friend, Liza Minnelli, in the apartment the designer decorated for her. She is just one of many 1970s style icons who wore his clothes, including Bianca Jagger, Babe Paley, Candice Bergen and Elizabeth Taylor.

Although Halston rarely spoke of his design process, Ralph Rucci, whose first job was cutting muslins in the Halston atelier, remembers watching him on the floor with a bolt of fabric, cutting a dress with no seams, and marveling over his ability to think three-dimensionally. Naeem Khan, who also worked as a Halston assistant, recounts the long nights, in particular a Long Island iced tea-fueled Valentine's Day party where the decor included naked women with their pubic hair dyed pink and shaved into the shape of hearts.

Sudler-Smith also visits Halston's modernist townhouse and his spectacular office, where the designer cultivated the sleek, minimalist image that would be imitated by Tom Ford and so many others, with mirrored walls and thousands of dollars worth of orchids.

But even after seeing the film's colorful interviews and TV clips, nude photos of the designer's Colombian window dresser boyfriend Victor Hugo and party scenes with Andy Warhol and the Dupont twins, it's still not entirely clear who Halston really was — where he came from, what motivated him, and whether his desire to dress the masses was genuine or just a $1-billion paycheck.

One thing is clear: When Halston started designing for JCPenney in 1982, the backlash was immediate. Not only did the clothes not sell, but Halston's high-end clients and retail accounts dropped him too.

Eventually, he descended so far into drugs that he rarely took off his sunglasses. By 1984, he had lost his job — and the ability to design under his own name. He moved to San Francisco, where he drove around in a Rolls-Royce. And when he died, the only place that would take his archives was Lipscomb University, a Bible college in Nashville, where they are stored to this day in dusty boxes in a windowless room.

Maybe now, someone will step forward and give them a proper home.


"Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston" has no release date yet. Go to for information.